This is the fourth part of an ongoing series delving in Sarah Bessey’s book “Jesus Feminist”. The other entries can be found here.
I loved the movie The Wizard of Oz when I was a kid. I loved the songs, I loved the ruby red slippers and my favorite character was the Scarecrow. (I did not love the flying monkeys or the mean apple throwing trees but that is a topic for another time.) But honestly, my favorite part of the whole movie was the moment Dorothy stepped out of her house and into Munchkinland. This was the moment the movie went from boring black and white to glorious color. I could finally see that Dorothy was wearing a blue dress! The yellow brick road was actually yellow! And the Wicked Witch of the West was a bright shade of green! To me, the movie didn’t really begin until that transition from black and white to color.
I mentioned in my last entry that when it came to understanding the motivations of people in power I wanted to denote them as all good or all bad instead of being willing to see the nuance. The “and” instead of the “or”. I think that desire for a right or wrong answer gets even more powerful when we start talking about theology. Bessey defines theology as “…simply what we think about God and then living that truth out in our right-now life.” (p. 55) Theology can be divisive but Bessey (and I) wish it didn’t have to be. She writes, “People want black-and-white- answers, but Scripture is a rainbow arch across a stormy sky. Our sacred book is not an indexed answer book or life manual.” That line struck me and brought me back to the movie The Wizard of Oz. The movie up until it switches to color always bored me. In fact I usually fast forwarded that whole section to get to the good parts. And yet, in my spiritual life I can crave the dullness of a black and white world. I want everything to be that simple. This is right, this is wrong. This is wrong all the time, and this is right all the time.
Bessey tells her readers that she wants them to wrestle with the Bible like Jacob wrestled with the angel. (p. 56) If you don’t remember that story it ends with Jacob having a broken hip! That is some intense wrestling! In my own walk through theology and faith I’ve reached what is simultaneously a freeing and terrifying thought; aside from a very few key issues (divinity of Christ, Jesus being the only way to salvation, loving God and our neighbors) most of my questions do not have black and white answers. I’ve held this belief for awhile now, but this past week in particular it seems that God wants to re-iterate it over and over again. First it was mentioned in Bessey’s book, in my own personal life I made a choice that firmly put me “in the gray” of my faith, and in my advent reading this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer jumped off the page at me.
“How we fail to understand when we think that the task of theology is to solve the mystery of God, to drag it down to the flat ordinary wisdom of human experience and reason! It’s sole office is to preserve the miracle as miracle, to comprehend, defend and glorify God’s mystery precisely as mystery.” (“God Is In The Manger” p.45)
Even those that would insist they do not subscribe to a “pick and choose” theology have to admit that in some circumstances they do just that. As Bessey points out, “…we sift our theology through Scripture, Church history and tradition, our reason, and our own experience.” (p. 57) Why does she go through all of this trouble (almost half of chapter four!) to talk about theology and our struggle with it? Because when we make the majority of our theology black and white “We read a few verses about women in a vacuum of literalism and prideful laziness.” (p. 58) Oh yes, we are tackling Paul’s instructions for women to be silent in the church. Buckle up!
No matter what side of the women in ministry issue you fall on, these verses (found in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians) can be highly divisive. I know as a women who believes in equality of leadership when someone quotes these verses as a reason against women in leadership I feel my whole being shudder in anger. So for the rest of this entry I will be practicing my more gentle approach and try not to turn over any tables. Bessey does not claim to have all the answers and is quick to point out that we will never get definitive answers on a lot our questions this side of eternity. But she endeavors to unpack as much as she can out of these troublesome verses. For clarity I am going to quote the passages in questions below.
“Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings.” 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (NLT)
“Women should learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly.” 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (NLT)
I’m ignoring those tables in the corner of my eye. I’m not going to turn them over. I’m not. Gentle spirit. Gentle spirit. I’m writing tongue in cheek but any woman knows the real pain that comes when sentiments like the above are expressed with real feeling to her. I love that Bessey’s first step is to ask people to acknowledge this pain and not hid behind a “well I didn’t say it; God said it” mentality. (p. 62) Men, even if you believe in the validity of these verses for women today you need to still acknowledge that being told to be silent purely because of your gender is painful. What makes this sentiment especially painful is that a woman gets this message constantly from the world around her in big and small ways. She gets that message when she’s called a bitch for asserting herself while a man who does the same is called powerful. She gets that message when she’s paid less for doing the same job as man. She gets that message when her job doesn’t give her paid family leave. She gets that message when someone asks how she was acting or what she was wearing the night she was raped. She gets that message when her father decides to marry her to man decades older than her. She gets that message when she is forced to undergo female circumcision. She gets that message when she is sold into sex slavery. Over and over again women are told by the world around them that they need to stay silent. And when she runs to the church for safety, if she’s confronted with these verses it hurts in an even more powerful way. The place she has run to for safety is sending her the same hurtful message she gets everywhere else.
Men, you don’t have to change your theology to acknowledge the pain that women sometimes feel when they read these verses. And men who believe in gender equality of leadership, this is why your sisters in Christ can sometimes “go off” when these verses are quoted. We are tired of hearing we need to be quiet. I’m not just tired. I’m frustrated. I get frustrated because as Bessey points out the verses in question are not universal standards. “They are a portion of the letters from the Apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, written to specific people in specific cities for specific situations that had arisen.” (p. 62 emphasis mine)
Oh specificity. My new favorite word. You are so important when it comes to these passages. If you are part of a church that believes in equality of leadership some of the following may already be known to you, but bear with me. I think it needs repeating. Bessey points out the following
- Women in the community of God were leading, teaching, ministering, and prophesying at the time of the letters Paul wrote to Timothy and to the Corinthian church. (p. 63)
- In 1 Corinthians 14:39 (just a few verses after our problem passage) Paul was encouraging the women of the church to prophesy alongside their brothers (p. 63)
So now we are back to that word again; specific. What is more likely? Paul contradicting himself in matter of four verses? Or that he was speaking to specific people about specific problems? Bessey (and I) tend to think the latter. She talks about how women flocked to the church in Corinth in droves because the church loved, valued, cared for, and affirmed them in ways the rest of the world did not. The Church represented freedom to these women. She goes on to point out that “Many scholars believe that in the exhilaration of their new found freedom, a group of women were disrupting the meeting with questions and opinions, and Paul, as a reminder, asked them to learn in quietness and talk it over at home with their husbands.” (p. 64) Again, if you are from an egalitarian church this interpretation is not new, but I still think it’s worth pointing out again. Paul is not advocating that women don’t learn. He’s pointing out the value of order in the service. This is not a gender issue. It’s a people issue.
Moving from the Corinthian passage to the Timothy passage we deal with a translation issue AND specificity issue. Bessey tells us that the world quietly found in Timothy is not silence like the Corinthian passage. It is the Greek word hesuchia:
“which means ‘stillness’-more along the lines of peacefulness or minding one’s own business. It’s not about talking versus not talking; it’s about learning in a still way, far from meddling in other people’s affairs…I never learn much myself when I’m constantly interrupting and questioning or applying the lesson to everyone else first. Sometimes we learn the most in stillness and peace.” (p.67)
So yet again Paul is speaking specifically to a group of women, not all women for all time. The Bible is perfect, but the culture the Bible was written in was not perfect. When we approach the Bible without an appreciation for the time period it was written in, we miss the whole picture. The church was radically feminist when it began. It doesn’t look radically feminist to us today until we look closer at the culture. In a time period where a woman’s word was not valued in court, when women were not educated, when women were owned first by their father then by their husbands, Paul came along and reminded everyone that in Christ “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) When women demand equality from their churches we are not demanding anything outside of its history. The church was always ahead of the surrounding culture when it came to women. As Bessey emphatically writes “When women are restricted from the service of God in any capacity, the Church is mistakenly allowing an imperfect male-dominated ancient culture to drive our understanding and practice of Christ’s redeeming work, instead of Jesus Christ and the whole of the Scriptures.”
Asking whether a women should be allowed to teach in church based on these two passages of Scripture makes no sense to me. The church always had a place for women in every capacity and was always up front about believing in everyone’s equality in Christ. Paul was writing letters to specific people to address specific problems they were encountering. I would shudder to think that in the future someone would take my personal messages to a close female friend and apply those principles to every female from that moment on, so why do some of us try to do that with Paul? The lessons we carry from Paul’s letters have to do with service order and how to learn with a gentle and quiet spirit. Those are lessons that both genders can and should hear. I will end with a quote Bessey uses from Loren Cunningham the founder of Youth With A Mission:
“So, should women be silent? Yes, just like the men. Should women be prepared to minister with ‘a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue of interpretation’? Yes, just like the men. Should women exercise self-control as they minister? Yes, just like the men. Should women seek to educate themselves so that they can better edify others when they minister? Yes, just like the men. ‘For God is not a God of disorder but of peace'” (p. 68)
What about you? Have you ever heard these interpretations of Paul’s message before? Do you agree with them? Why or why not? Are there other areas of specificity in the Bible that we have less of problem dealing with than here? Leave any and all thoughts in the comment